New York's New Gun Controls Make the PATRIOT Act Look Like a Model of Legislative Deliberation


Last night, by a vote of 43 to 18, the New York State Senate, which is run by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, approved the new gun restrictions demanded last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including a seven-round limit on magazines (down from 10) and a broader, California-style ban on "assault weapons." Today the New York State Assembly, controlled by Democrats, followed suit by a vote of 104 to 43, allowing Cuomo to sign the legislation less than a week after he asked for it in his State of the State address last Wednesday—especially impressive given that yesterday was the first full day of the new legislative session. "The guns package was negotiated privately by the governor and legislative leaders over the last several weeks," The New York Times reports, "but was only completed late Monday," so "rank-and-file Senators had only a few minutes to read the legislation before voting on it."

By comparison, the panicky passage of the PATRIOT Act was a model of legislative deliberation. While six weeks passed between 9/11 and George W. Bush's signing of the PATRIOT Act, only four passed between the Sandy Hook massacre and Andrew Cuomo's signing of New York's new gun controls. And unlike the New York legislature, Congress was actually in session during that period. 

Such "unusual haste" (as the Times describes it) deviates from the normal rule, laid out in Article II, Section 14 of the New York Constitution, that at least three days must elapse between the introduction of a bill and a vote on it. The constitition allows an exception when the governor publicly explains "the facts which in his or her opinion necessitate an immediate vote." Here is Cuomo's explanation:

Some weapons are so dangerous, and some ammunition devices so lethal, that New York State must act without delay to prohibit their continued sale and possession in the state in order to protect its children, first responders and citizens as soon as possible. This bill, if enacted, would do so by immediately banning the ownership, purchase and sale of assault weapons and large capacity ammunition feeding devices, and eliminate them from commerce in New York State.

In other words, there was no time to consider whether magazines holding more than seven rounds or guns with certain arbitarily selected cosmetic features pose an intolerable threat to public safety, because these items pose an intolerable threat to public safety. Also, it's for the children!

Mind you, the law does not actually ban possession of the newly redefined "assault weapons," which current owners may keep if they register them. Likewise, despite Cuomo's complaints about "large-capacity ammunition feeding devices" that were grandfathered under the old law, the new law allows possession of magazines holding eight, nine, or 10 rounds by people who currently own them. With millions of those in circulation, it may be years before the new limit has an impact on the magazines available to mass murderers and other criminals, assuming it ever does. Still, why add a day or two to the time it will take to reach that goal? Who could possibly favor such an unconscionable delay, when the lives of our children are endangered by every second that passes without a new gun law? Only someone who is old-fashioned enough to believe that legislators should read a bill, and maybe even consider its merits, before approving it.

As one indication of how well understood this legislation is, a report on it in today's national edition of The New York Times claims "the expanded assault weapons ban would bar semiautomatic weapons that have a single additional feature to increase their deadliness." Here is the list of additional features for rifles (updated to reflect the final text): 1) a folding or telescoping stock, 2) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, 3) a thumbhole stock, 4) a second handgrip or a protruding grip that can be held by the non-trigger hand, 5) a bayonet mount, 6) a flash suppressor, muzzle break, muzzle compensator, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor, muzzle break, or muzzle compensator, or 7) a grenade launcher. Exactly how, you may wonder, does a flash suppressor, a folding stock, or a bayonet mount make a rifle more deadly in the hands of a mass murderer? Perhaps implicitly acknowledging this misconception, which is crucial to the appeal of "assault weapon" bans, someone at the Times removed that claim from the online version of the story (although there is no correction note at the bottom). Yet every legislator who voted for this law mistakenly believes (or at least pretends to believe) what the Times mistakenly reported: that there is something uniquely dangerous about these firearms.

In addition to the bans on "assault weapons" and "large-capacity" magazines, there are other provisions that might have merited some additional thought. According to the Times, for example, the bill authorizes (and maybe requires) psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to strip patients/clients of their Second Amendment rights:

The most significant new element would require mental health professionals to report to local mental health officials when they believe that patients are likely to harm themselves or others. Law enforcement officials would then be authorized to confiscate any firearm owned by a dangerous patient; therapists would not be punished for a failure to report such patients if they acted "in good faith."

The new threshold for taking away someone's guns is evidently lower than the threshold for committing him to a mental hospital (which would bar him from owning guns under federal law). In the name of protecting the public from unstable people with guns, the legislature has enacted a provision that seems likely to discourage gun owners from seeking mental health services. Can it really be that the say-so of a single mental health professional is all it takes? Is there any judicial review or appeals process after the fact? I don't know, because I have not read the bill. Then again, neither have most of the legislators who voted for it.

Update: In case you are a New York legislator and wonder what the hell you just voted for, here is the text of the bill.

Update II: I have corrected the list of suspect rifle features, which are somewhat different from California's, to reflect the final version of the bill. The exception to reporting a recipient of mental health services deemed dangerous to himself or others applies only when doing so would endanger potential victims.